Monday, March 16, 2009

Dark Places

This weekend I allowed my growing booklust almost entirely free reign, making several injudicious purchases, one judicious purchase (all three Bourne books for $8!), and a binge visit to the library. Mostly to get a second glance at the last line, I re-read The Great Gatsby in an afternoon, causing poor Dave to choke with unrestrained anger at what he calls my ungodly "speed reading." If this is my super power, so be it - I always wanted flight, or the ability to shoot shock waves out of my hands, but I guess beggars can't be choosers.

Since another weekend day yawned out before me, I then picked up another library find: The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion's meditation of grief, loss, and mourning. I'm not sure what made me think that now was the time to read this book; I was choosing literature for vacation, and I had avoided Magical Thinking up to this point because I knew it would do to me precisely what it is now doing, viz. causing a thrill of fear to ripple through me in unsteady increments.

The book follows Didion's mourning period after the death of her husband, while her daughter Quintana was in the hospital battling (first) pneumonia and septic shock and (then, later) invasive neural bleeding. Didion makes early mention of the fact that there aren't a great many (non-self-help) books that deal directly with grief, especially outside of poetry. Right now, three-quarters of the way through Magical Thinking, I can readily understand why.

Not because the field of inquiry is in any way unrich; no. It's because reading about the unexpected grief of others - the surprise loss, the deadly ordinariness of death's door, the meticulous re-creation of events and medical history created and combed through to make some semblance of sense of things - is terrifying and even immobilizing. When Didion researches her daughter's condition, the blockages in the brain, the blood clots wending their way towards her heart, I am suddenly hyper-aware of my own anatomy. I feel my head swell, my heart clench, my blood flow - not in a celebration of ongoing life, but in a terror that each tremor could hold some unknown meaning. I don't want to feel my body - I want my body to feel.

In the face of Didion's unflinching self-reflection, I wonder if I'm missing something in my squeamishness. She makes a point of chastising herself for failing to anticipate all this tragedy, for ignoring her husband's fearful premonitions. There aren't enough books about grief, she says (despite quoting at length from one of her husband's own) - and here I am racing through the pages of her own, trying to expunge from myself this dark totem.

But I just don't know. Can human beings face death and loss before the time comes? Should they try? It remains a mystery to me, as I head into the final pages.

One last thought: To avoid scaring away those interested, I will say that Magical Thinking is well worth reading. Last night I said to Dave, "It's extremely depressing, but still really beautiful."

"It is?" he asked, skeptical. He doesn't like Joan Didion, and I'll often call something beautiful just to indicate that it has qualities of good.

I don't remember if I replied at all, but in retrospect the answer is yes. Didion retains her straightforward, journalistic style, so the prose is not overflowing with symbols or similes. But the very structure deserves to be called beautiful - the way she lets us into her obsessions, the way she works these dark thoughts over until they are smooth, letting us run our fingers over the surface.

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Blogger Beth said...

I read this book maybe 2 years ago, just after a small bit was published in the NYT Magazine, and adored it. In some way Didion was born to write it-- but perhaps that's not the best way of saying what I mean. Her voice, which seemed to be a coded request for a bitchslap in some of her earlier work (the white album? Really? Pretentious wrapped in precocious wrapped in a linen frock) has a brittle and precise quality that seems just the thing for grief.

3:27 PM  

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